To be perfectly honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect from A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX when I first started playing. I heard it mentioned somewhere that it was a bit similar to a Mega Man game, but that seems somewhat inaccurate for a number of reasons. You don’t select stages in any order, don’t gain a version of every boss’ weapon, don’t have a limited amount of ammo for weapons other than your primary, and don’t have to fight all the bosses again at the end of the game. Seriously, Mega Man isn’t the best comparison that can be made here.
“Metroidvania” is another word I’ve heard thrown around to describe the game, but that is also fairly misleading. While it’s true that you can revisit areas of the game with newly acquired powers in order to reach previously inaccessible upgrades, you do so by replaying stages, not backtracking. There isn’t even a map of each stage that can be viewed in a pause menu, so Metroid and Castlevania comparisons are also best left off the table.
But enough about what A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX is not. Let’s talk about what the game actually is. ARES — which is how I will refer to the game for the remainder of this review — is a side-scrolling action platformer that can be played with one of two robot characters, each of which have their own unique weapons and abilities. The game takes place over the course of seven levels, which can be revisited at any time. At the end of each stage, you will also receive a letter grade that judges you for your performance, and the higher difficulties allow you to earn a higher ranking.
Three upgrades can be found in each level, but the abilities that they unlock have to be paid for with a form of in-game currency, which is dropped by defeated enemies. That currency — referred to as materials — also pays for you to repair a sizeable portion of your health at the press of a button. But the ability does have a cool down timer, so you can’t rely on it too much during a challenging boss encounter, especially on the hard difficulty setting.
As for the gameplay itself, after playing for a few minutes I quickly found myself reliving pleasant memories of an old PC game named Abuse, which was probably the first shoot-in-any-direction side-scroller that I ever played, and which should be considered a complement. The shooting itself feels right, and the upgrade system gives you a good sense of progression. Revisiting levels to search for upgrades could have felt like a chore, but I found that using your new abilities to do so helped build upon the game’s feeling of advancement. Like most games that increase your powers over time, it’s sometimes fun to go back to the earlier sections of the game and just plough through areas that were previously quite a bit more difficult.
While it’s a shame that ARES isn’t a longer game — my first play-through took about four hours and thirty minutes — the good news is that there’s no real filler. The seven stages are of a decent length, and never overstay their welcome, or end before it feels that they should. Being able to play through the game again with the other character also helps with replay value. Your materials even carry over to your next play-through, which was a nice touch.
The music comes from composer Hyperduck Studios — the company that was also responsible for the excellent Dust: An Elysian Tail soundtrack — and it fits the game quite well. The art direction is equally strong, looking like a 16-bit game for a high-definition world. I certainly do enjoy my retro pixel art as much as the next person, but that’s not ARES, and that’s perfectly alright. The art direction is also probably where you can best make a connection with the Mega Man series, and I mean that as a compliment as well.
Aside from the length, there are a few other minor issues I had with ARES. Likely to keep developments costs down, there is no voice acting to be heard. This can be a little jarring at times, especially when juxtaposed with the game’s few fully animated cut-scenes. I also have a couple of minor gripes to make concerning the controls. An alternate control option where the jump button could be placed on the bumper or trigger buttons would have been nice, and would’ve prevented a number of needless hits that were a result of not being able to move my thumb from the analogue stick to the A button quickly enough. Speaking of jumping, the controls could feel just a little tighter – an issue that was especially apparent during the few sections where the protagonists were able to fall or be crushed into an instant death. One elevator section in particular crossed my personal line of fun or frustration, but checkpoints are especially merciful before these moments, so this should be considered a fairly minor complaint.
Lastly, for a game supposedly inspired by Mega Man and Metroid — no matter how much I might personally disagree with those comparisons from a gameplay perspective — I found A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX a little on the easy side during my “normal mode” play-through. If you’re looking for a challenge, I strongly suggest that you bump the difficulty setting up to hard, especially since you can always change it latter.
This review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, which was provided to us.
A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX is a solid action game made by a small team of obviously devoted gamers. While I wouldn't call it a must play for anyone, fans of classic side-scrolling shooters should find a lot to enjoy.